Assembly: NYU Professor on How Technology Captures, and Monetizes, Our Attention

Candy Crush and Angry Birds are ingrained in our cultural lexicon. Most people are familiar with these massively popular mobile games—but how many know the design theory fueling that popularity?

In a virtual Assembly, Natasha Dow Schüll, a cultural anthropologist and Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, presented on her decades-long research on how technology mediates our everyday life. She focused on slot machines and how they are designed as attention-grabbing devices, much like those games on our phones. 

Slot Machine Design

Schüll’s first book, Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, explains the design of slot machines in casinos. In talking with casino owners, machine designers, and gamblers, one idea stood out above all: "the zone." Schüll explains it as a “trance-like space” where everything else in life “goes out the window,” even pain in some cases. 

Rather than using risk and excitement—typical models for gambling—the industry will use flow and rhythm in creating their machines. For many users, the aim is not winning big but simply continuing to play and be rewarded a little bit at a time. The profit logic is about length and volume of play, not price. By just putting a little bit of money in at a time, and continuing to play for many hours in that trance-like state, users lose track of the time and money they’re spending.  

Attention Economy

After explaining the slot machines, Schüll turned to a broader focus of the “attention economy,” which aims to profit from our mindless attention. Even websites that you're not paying for profit from advertising as we spend more and more time staring at the screen. This extends to Instagram, Facebook, and all other social media, which wants to keep us scrolling through pictures. 

Schüll came up with the term “Ludic Loop” to explain this aimless behavior. It hinges on four elements: 

  • Solitude: It’s just you and the machine, and you can keep going without anyone telling you otherwise.

  • Fast Feedback: A simple push of a button or swipe of the finger allows for immediate gratification and renewal.

  • Random Rewards: Delivering rewards at random hooks users more so than a predictable award schedule.

  • Continuity: There is no resolution, like in how Netflix (and other streaming sites) automatically count down to the next episode when one finishes, allowing for the continuous binge.

So what does this all mean? In the questions from students and staff that followed the presentation, a wide array of consequences and ethical questions were posed.

At what point does the usage of slot machines turn from fair play to unethical addiction-by-design? If these devices can block out pain, whether physical or emotional, can they be used in palliative care? Why shouldn’t casinos hire neuroscientists to design their buildings and machines? 

The list of questions, as always, can go on and on (such is the beauty of exploring a new topic in an Assembly!), but Schüll did leave the Commonwealth audience with a guide for more reading and learning. 

Recommendations from the Speaker

  • "Engineers of Addiction," from The Verge, on the crossover of techniques from gambling to online platforms and apps.

  • An essay on whether or not the Internet should be regulated for its addictive qualities.

  • An interview with Schüll on the data analytics and surveillance aspects of casinos. 

  • Find more articles, podcasts, and radio bits from Schüll, including a testimony in the Boston State House several years ago, here.